• Drive In Collection: Savage Water/Death By Invitation

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: March 12, 2013.
    Director: Paul Kener/Ken Friedman
    Cast: Gil Van Waggoner, Shelby Leverington, Aaron Phillips, Norman Paige
    Year: 1979/1971
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    The Movies:

    This double feature from Vinegar Syndrome pairs up two regional oddities both on DVD for the first time. Pretty damn hard to find prior to this release, Savage Water got a European VHS release and Death By Invitation hit VHS by way of Frank Hennenlotter’s Sexy Shockers From The Vaults line of Something Weird Video releases but this release marks the first time they’ve been seen on home video in their original widescreen aspect ratios.

    Savage Water:

    The first film was directed by Paul Kener who is probably best known for directing Wendigo, an oddball horror film he directed a year before Savage Water, which seems to be the last film he made. At any rate, the ‘plot’ of this one is pretty minimalist and the movie plays out like some sort of strange mix of backwoods slasher (think Rituals or Just Before Dawn) padded out with lots and lots of travelogue footage extolling the virtues of the Grand Canyon and condemning litter bugs the world over.

    Essentially what happens here is a bearded guy named Dave Savage (Gil Van Waggoner) runs a white water rafting business and given that this is the peak of the summer tourist season, he seems to be pretty busy. Lots of people show up to head down the Colorado River under his supervision, so many people in fact that they manage to fill three rafts – so be on the lookout for a Hitler hating German couple of who buy lots of beer, a troublemaking kid who throws garbage in the river, a man who changes his outfit every time the camera is on him, a grumpy psychiatrist and a guy in sunglasses who kind of looks like John Holmes, a few hot chicks, and a mysterious foreigner named Mahomad (Rashad Javeri) who quickly learns that American girls are willing to kiss him. This motley crew of what the fuck spends the first forty three minutes of the movie cruising down the river and talking. Really, nothing happens. They look at the pretty scenery and the kid throws some garbage into the river – at which point of the other guys throws him into the river to go get it – but outside of that, this might as well be your mom’s home movies.

    Once we get to the middle of the movie, however, a guy who looks not unlike Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy gets puzzlingly tossed off of a cliff to his death, landing in one part of the river and then mysteriously popping up in another part near some chicks having a swim. From here on out, the pacing does pick up and a few more people get tossed off of cliffs to their deaths and/or attacked by random rattlesnakes tossed into sleeping bags. While all of this is going on lots of people row and lots more people stand around in the background and look awkward and unsure of themselves.

    This one takes its sweet ass time getting going, that’s for sure, but somehow despite the fact that NOTHING HAPPENS during the first half of the movie, it’s surprisingly watchable simply because Paul Kener seems to have been intent on casting anyone and everyone he could in this movie. The cast for this micro budget 16mm cheapie is surprisingly huge and it’s fairly puzzling as to why Kener would think having this many people in his movie was a good idea, but it is what it is and it does manage to make for an entertaining B-movie in its own horrible way.

    There are a few inventive deaths here, though most people meet their end by falling off of a cliff, and some bizarre but interesting moments of humor – such as when one cast members decides to use the toilet tent that’s been set up for their convenience only for one woman to run up to it, blow smoke inside, and then run away… for no reason whatsoever. The movie is ninety five minutes long and contains about fifteen minutes of story, the rest is made up of random bits of interaction between the countless characters that populate the film. It’s simultaneously horrible and awesome, though you have to give Kener credit for capturing some really nice footage of the Grand Canyon and for making the most out of the location photography. Bonus points are deducted, however, for letting his wife sing a horrible song about a third of the way into the movie. This one is slow, but not at all unwatchable if you’re in the right frame of mind for it.

    Death By Invitation:

    The second feature on the disc comes courtesy of Ken Friedman. The film starts off with a bizarre scene set three hundred years ago in Holland with a group of people in heavy facial makeup and learn about a witch who was found guilty of cavorting with the devil or some such nonsense. In turn, she was in turn burned at the stake at the hands of the Vroot family. Cut to the present day of 1971 where we meet a pretty young woman named Lise (Shelby Leverington). She’s hot but also kind of weird – and she just might be the descendent of the witch put to death in the beginning of the movie. Wouldn’t you know it, Lise soon makes her way into the inner circle of the modern day Vroot family. After dinner one night, she and youngest son Roger Vroot (Denver John Collins) head back to her place where she murders him after reciting a pretty awesome rant about female warrior cannibals.

    Roger’s death does not go unnoticed but for reasons never really explained the cops figure he’s off doing drugs and not actually dead. Lise, however, is working her way through the Vroot clan pretty quickly, taking out two of Roger’s sisters in a great scene in which she chops off one’s head and terrorizes the other with it. There’s a third Vroot sister, however, and she’s romantically involved with a tough guy named Jake (Norman Paige) who is very nonplussed by this recent spate of nastiness. He’s also seriously turned on by Lise and when he meets her he can’t help but hit on her. When he shows up at her pad, she starts ranting about crazy stuff again and he soon realizes exactly what it is that she’s been up to.

    Executive produced by Leonard Kirtman, the same name who gave us the cool Coney Island based horror filmCarnival Of Blood, The Curse Of The Headless Horseman and loads of porn and directed by Ken Friedman, who would later write Johnny Handsome and Cadillac Man, this one is pretty great. It’s not original in the least and it rehashes a whole lot of other (and some may say better) horror movies made before and after but it’s not without a considerable amount of bizarre low rent charm. Front and center in all of this is Shelby Leverington, the same actress who would go on to considerable success in television with recurring roles in Highway To Heaven and cameos all over the damn place. Here she’s a bit of a hottie, she’s got an aura of weirdness about her that really goes a long way towards making this cheap oddball of a film completely watchable. The fact that it was all filmed in some sort of drug induced haze doesn’t hurt things, as the movie winds up with some interesting hallucinatory touches throughout, but for the most part Leverington plays her role well.

    The complete lack of interest on the part of the police is odd, they simply don't seem to care and instead insist that missing Roger is off pushing dope. In another unusually prolonged scene, Jake goes to visit elder Vroot patron Peter at his real estate office. The two sit down and have a completely bizarre conversation in which they seem to be shouting over the music playing unusually loudly behind them. It adds nothing to the film, and at the same time, it says everything about it. This is a film where logic doesn't not apply.

    The movie shows its budgetary limitations throughout – there is a rather obvious lack of effects work during the murder set pieces, for example, and what effects that we do see are pretty hokey – but helps to compensate for this with a remarkably bizarre score and a serious aura of weirdness that just permeates the whole damn thing. Fans of obscure seventies oddities, this one is for you.


    Both films are presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen and transferred from 35mm archival prints. We’ll assume that since Savage Water was shot on 16mm that it was then transferred for 35mm for whatever theatrical play it received, which couldn’t have been much. It looks harsher than the second feature, particularly in the first few minutes where the image is really soft and hazy. Things clean up quickly, however, and while the image quality never comes close to amazing it’s certainly watchable. Colors fade and fluctuate and print damage is always around as is a very thick coating of grain but the transfer manages to bring out whatever detail the elements allow for. Invitation To Death looks better, showing a broader spectrum of color throughout and showing considerably better clarity and depth. For the low budget obscurities that these movies are, they really don’t look bad on DVD at all.

    Both films get Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks, in English and without any optional language options or subtitles provided. Clarity of each mix is fine, though there are moments in Savage Water that are a bit muffled sounding – not to the point where you can’t hear what’s going on, but noticeable enough to mention. There are some scenes that sound a bit flat but that’s obviously to do with the original recording. The scores sound good here and the levels are properly balanced. Any hiss or distortion that does creep into the mix is minor and not particularly distracting while the dialogue is consistently easy to understand and follow. Again, keep your expectations in check and you should be alright here.

    Each movie gets a commentary track from the guys who do the Hysteria Continues podcasts. Both tracks are worth listening to and the guys do a pretty good job of delivering as many facts and trivia notes about each movie as they’re able to while still injecting the tracks with enough personality and quirky comedy as they can. This is one of those cases where they manage to take the movies seriously enough that you’ll learn something about the films being discussed but the material is delivered in such a way that they’re amusing to listen to. You’ve got to appreciate their love of Mahomad and his philandering ways in the first movie and their appreciation of Kener’s Wendigo, which comes up a few times during the talk. They also discuss the locations, the bizarre number of cast members, the use of music in the movie and more. For the second feature they seem rather fascinated by the horrible job that the cops do in the movie but also manage to discuss Friedman’s odd stints into directing and ramble off some other tidbits of trivia and minutia, the kind of stuff that cult movie fans enjoy learning about.

    Outside of that we get some static menus and chapter stops for each movie.

    The Final Word:

    Two micro-budget cheapie horror films, Savage Water and Death By Invitation make for a pretty fun double feature if you’re in the right mood for some screwy low rent entertainment. Vinegar Syndrome presents the movies looking about as good as they’re probably going to look unless better elements surface at some point, and with a pair of enjoyable commentary tracks as well. Lots of quirky, trashy fun to be had here. Dig in.

    Check out this clip before you check out the screen caps and sample the music from Savage Water!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Randy G's Avatar
      Randy G -
      Watched Death by Invitation on TCM and wow is this a strange movie. A real gem.